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Tribute to Rev. Dr Philip Potter

Tribute to Rev. Dr Philip Potter by Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the WCC Central Committee.

16 April 2015

A Pilgrim and Prophet of the Ecumenical Movement in the 20th and 22nd Centuries:

Philip Potter has been for the ecumenical movement within and beyond WCC a towering symbol of commitment and distinctive presence in the life of the Church. He was a teacher, a pastor and prophet who taught us the way of pilgrimage and how   to overcome violence with love by proclaiming Justice and peace in our world. As a pastor he gave us eyes to see the real   enemies of Humanity that are often within us and that by embracing the message of forgiveness we learn to cross the boundaries of faith that divide humanity hence his endeavor as General Secretary of WCC to widen the scope of ecumenical vision of unity. The church for him was a pilgrim people with a prophetic mandate proclaiming the new humanity in Christ. Philip Potter remains for us a towering symbol of the ecumenical movement for even in his retirement he was still involved in activities focused on the formation of a new generation of ecumenists.

By retracing the life and times of Philip Potter in the ecumenical movement we encounter the richness and depth of his own spirituality and discernment. The personal portraits of Philip Potter [1] are not only a definitive contribution to the very fabric of the ecumenical vocation but also a candid articulation of the pitfalls within the movement itself as well written in “wither ecumenism”[2] We are today witnessing a new historical moment of new problems and promises in the ecumenical movement. Yet the later would not be possible without the inspiration the new generation of ecumenists to continue to draw from the wealth of knowledge and legacy of Philip Potter.   During the time of his leadership at WCC he drew from the ethical resources of a pilgrim church under captivity of legitimization of power without the authority of the people and the enforcement of unethical systems in the name of “Law and Order” which fed on tyranny and dictatorships.

He spoke and stood against blind obedience and absolute loyalty to tyranny of racist regimes. From humble beginnings in the Island of Dominica in the Caribbean, he was exposed to a world of diversity with constant demand for a negotiated outlook. He then became a pilgrim, transversing the complex terrain of secular life and the challenges of theological formation.

Philip Potter brought with him to the WCC new thinking in terms of dialogue of cultures as a means of navigating the new frontiers of the ecumenical movement. For example he once said “We have been learning that the way for the ecumenical movement is the way of dialogue with the modern world. Dialogue is a form of existence, the form of the incarnate Lord as a servant living among human beings, open and vulnerable to them. It is the way of the Cross [3]”, Phillip’s own narrative of pilgrimage was not just exemplified in traversing the globe from his origins in the Caribbean Islands and cross cultural relationships through marriage but also the lonesome struggle embodied in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. This self giving and service to the Church and the ecumenical movement was at the heart of his mission and calling in this world. He took with him the burden of a fractured society and with humility transcended the forces of fragmentation through dialogue. And for this reason we shall forever remember him with the following parting words of wisdom;

“As a typical Caribbean man, I am made of various cultural heritages, Carib, African, Irish, French and therefore with a universal tendency. Early I developed a passion for history and geography. It is therefore no surprise that experiencing God for me means experiencing his varied grace and wisdom. Experiencing God in the dialogue between cultures is part of my inner and outer experience and therefore constitutes my calling. Happily during more than thirty years in the ecumenical movement I have had the privilege of carrying out this calling in an extraordinary variety of ways[4]”.

Our elder brother has gone before us to join the ecumenical ancestors. We thank God for giving him to us and now calling him back. May the good Lord receive him as a pilgrim of humanity and the ecumenical movement.

Dr Agnes Abuom
WCC Central Committee moderator


[1] Pauline Webb “Philip Porter- A personal portrait”, in faith and faithfulness, Essays on contemporary ecumenical themes, Pauline   Webb Ed., Geneva, WCC, 1984.

[2] Thomas Wieser, “wither ecumenism?” A dialogue in the transit lounge of the ecumenical movement, Geneva, WCC, 1986

[3] Potter, Life in all its fullness, pp 80ff.

[4] Ibid